Charity or Philanthropy: take your pick

Charity and Philanthropy: both bring light to the world

Here’s a question during this season of giving: If you volunteer at the local food bank or toss coins into the Salvation Army bucket, are you being charitable or philanthropic?

Last year at this time, Aktkar Badshah, who heads up Microsoft’s Corporate Citizenship office, spoke at AFP Washington’s Annual Meeting. He made an interesting distinction between charity and philanthropy. It’s a distinction that I’ve been mulling over for twelve months now. It may seem like quibbling over semantics but I think it’s worth getting clear on this distinction as you head into the final throes of 2011.

Akthar explained that charity is an individual act that benefits the community at large whereas philanthropy increases the well-being of human kind. In this construct, charity is shorter term and, it would seem, lower impact whereas philanthropy is longer term and higher impact.

This is not to say there’s anything wrong with charitable acts. Quite the contrary! They add up to a philanthropic culture and that’s what we’re going for, i.e. enough charitable acts eventually lead to wide-scale impact, or philanthropy.

During this time of year when your supporters have doing good on the brain, the question is: are you creating opportunities for charity or fueling philanthropy? Depending on your goals, either is fine. Just be clear on which one it is.

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  1. Interesting distinction, Erica. I still believe that philanthropy and charity are synonymous. Here’s the dictionary definition of philanthropy:

    “altruistic concern for human welfare and advancement, usually manifested by donations of money, property, or work to needy persons, by endowment of institutions of learning and hospitals, and by generosity to other socially useful purposes.”

    • Elaine–I am the first to admit that I over-think words. Occupational hazard. : )

      I wonder if they are synonymous or, rather, complementary, i.e. charitable acts are part of being philanthropic and/or philanthropy is more of a mindset vs. discreet, individual actions that aren’t necessarily tied together by a common philosophical approach to one’s philanthropy.

      Thanks for thinking through this with me!

  2. Dana Van Nest says:

    I agree with the distinction between the two definitions, feeling that a charitable act can be small and personal, cash or in-kind, while a philanthropic act is a larger scale event, moving a organization or idea forward for greater community good. For example, I am trying to teach my eight-year-old about charitable giving as a building block to leading a philanthropic life.

    • Hadn’t thought about charitable acts as a stepping stone/way of learning about being philanthropic in quite those terms. What a great idea, Dana!

  3. Akhtar Badshah says:

    I believe we should be doing both charity and philanthrophy and it is not about semantics. Think about it this way. On Thanksgiving many of us go help out at a food kitchen serving those in need, or we may also write a check to a food bank so the hungry can be fed. All very noble acts and something we as members of society that can afford to should do. But this act is not going to solve the problems of chronic hunger in many parts of society. Philantrophy is a more deliberate act that works on finding the right set of organziations that are addressing this issue and then makeing a commitment over a period of time to help address the issue — that is if hunger is something that you want to focus on. As we all reflect on the year end and think about giving back it is important to consider both charity and philantrophy.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Akhtar! Your clarifying points about time horizon–i.e. philanthropy takes place over time–and level of intention are very helpful. I also like Dana’s suggestion of thinking of charitable acts as stepping stones to philanthropy.

      Here’s to more charity AND philanthropy!

  4. Lindsay Bealko says:

    I see value in the distinction as well. I like to think about philanthropy as the long-term INVESTMENT to solve the larger problem (as others have indicated) and charity is the shorter-term gifts we make along the way. To me, philanthropy is more about investing and social change, whereas charity is about making a gift to help with a more immediate need. And yes – we need both!

    • You and Akhtar make me realize how much this is an ‘and’ conversation vs. a ‘but’ or ‘either/or’. Thank you!

  5. Kevin Futhey says:

    Interesting discussion! At the Washington Food Coalition conference this year, a keynote speaker spoke of “giving a man a fish” and “teaching a man to fish,” and that while the latter is often held up as preferable, both are necessary. I find this parable a more useful launch pad for a discussion about long-term versus short term solutions than creating an unnecessary distinction between the words charity and philanthropy.

    While both charity and philanthropy essentially mean love of man (or humanity), they come to us from different languages: Latin and Greek, respectively.

    Charity has more cultural currency, probably because of its use in holy texts, but I see no need to create a fundamental distinction between these two beautiful words that have the same meaning.

    I don’t know if there is a single word that can mean “working to permanently correct systemic injustice/inhumanity.”

    I would submit that such a word should not be founded on the concept of love. Love can be a motivator to action, but in the end, laws must be rewritten. We would need to start speaking of “rights.”

    As it stands, we already have the right to love and be loved. We do not, however, have the right to eat, or the right to shelter, or the right to a job.

    • Beautifully said, Kevin. Your introduction of the concept of rights and how that fits into making the world a better place is very interesting. Will have to keep thinking on that one. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

  6. I love your post! I blogged about the EXACT SAME topic last week, and the comments feed has similar agreements, disagreements and definitions. I would love to hear your take (if you don’t mind the shameless self-promotion) at

    • So glad you brought your post to my attention. Thank you. Many points jumped out at me. One in particular was that the Goodwill founder said it to be “not charity, but a chance.” Perhaps a piece of this puzzle is that charity IS a chance, a chance for all of us to make the world a better place. As with other comments, it’s not one or the other but both.

      Thanks, Matthew, for contributing to this lively discussion!

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